A Hot Car, a Toddler and Malice Murder

Today, a Cobb County judge granted a motion to change the venue of the trial of Justin Ross Harris for the murder of his toddler son Cooper two years ago. Harris, who was unhappy as a husband and father, left Cooper in his closed car on a hot summer day, killing the child. Harris had a long history of exchanging lewd texts and other messages with various women; everyone in metro Atlanta immediately jumped to the conclusion that Harris had killed his child on purpose instead of just through negligence. He’s a very unsympathetic defendant and the case drew national media attention: I can’t argue with the judge’s decision.

The facts of the case are pretty simple: Harris and his now ex-wife both researched hot car deaths on the internet. Harris exchanged messages with another woman while he was having breakfast with Cooper. The woman complained at length about her marriage; Harris responded “I love my son and all, but we all need escapes”. Some hours later, Cooper was dead.

But this is the sum total of the state’s actual evidence against Harris. They’re charging him with malice murder, which means he intended to kill Cooper. This is a ludicrous charge, given the evidence. There’s no way the state can prove that Harris’ statement above demonstrates criminal intent: it could just as easily be “yeah, yeah, that sucks”.

The state is hedging its bets by also charging Harris with two counts of felony murder, which I’ve written about before. Felony murder means you started or participated in a crime that resulted in someone’s death, even if you had no intention of killing anyone. The crimes in Harris’ case are first degree cruelty to a child (he left Cooper in the car on purpose) and second degree cruelty to a child (he left Cooper in the car negligently). Clearly, there’s no way to prove the first, and the second goes without saying.

It’s undeniable that Harris was an irresponsible parent, but it’s also very well-documented that parents forget their children in cars often enough for it to be a real hazard: the culprit appears to be rearward-facing baby seats in the back seats of cars. Stressed parent, typically sleep-deprived like all parents of young children, a change in routine, easy to do. Here’s a WaPo story that goes into detail about how some parents are charged and others just left to deal with a lifetime of guilt. In other words, there are no clear standards for what constitutes criminal culpability here. Harris and his wife may have been looking up hot car deaths because they’d only just heard how often it happens. Harris could just be one of the millions of spouses and parents who long for the greener grass on the other side.

I have no idea whether Harris left Cooper in the car on purpose. There’s just not enough evidence. And therefore, the prosecutor doesn’t know, either, unless there’s evidence being concealed until the trial, which given the propensity of everyone associated with this trial to leak everything to the press, I highly doubt. I want to be clear here that I don’t believe Harris is innocent, so much as I don’t think there’s anything like enough evidence to convict him of a crime more serious than second degree cruelty. IMHO he’s being overcharged, as is so often the case, probably in the hopes that he’s going to see public opinion ready to lynch him and take a deal for manslaughter.

 

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